Authors I Wish Were Still Around

Sonya_Noskowiak,_John_Steinbeck,_1930

John Steinbeck” by Sonya Noskowiak is licensed under CC BY 2.5

One of the realities of books is that (at least for the present), they must be written by a living person. Yesterday, as I wrote about the authors whose next books I would buy, I kept thinking of favorite authors who will never write another book. Here are some who came to mind:

Wallace Stegner. Whether writing about the American West, or about the passages of life, Stegner helps us to love what he loved, to think with him about life, with an economy of prose.

John Steinbeck. From Cannery Row to East of Eden, he left us with memorable characters capturing the struggle for existence, the joys of life, and the bonds and discords within families.

Elizabeth Peters. My wife and I delighted for years in her Amelia Peabody series, equal part Egyptology and rollicking adventure with Emerson, Ramses, Nefret, Sennia, and their friends.

Dorothy L. SayersHow I wish there were more Lord Peter Wimsey stories, especially with Harriet Vane! My favorite? Probably The Nine Tailors with Gaudy Night as a runner up.

Barbara Tuchman. Whether writing about 14th century France, or the onset of World War 1, or Joseph Stilwell, she brought history alive for the layperson with elegant prose and flowing narrative. Underneath it all, she portrayed the follies of war, brought together in her book The March of Folly.

William Manchester. He seemed uniquely able to write grandly about grand figures, whether John F. Kennedy or Winston Churchill. I personally wish he, rather than Paul Reid, had finished the final volume on Churchill. He captured the vainglory of Douglas MacArthur, and rise and fall of the Krupp dynasty.

Rachel Carson. She is most known for Silent Spring, her warning of the dangers of pesticides. Less known is her beautiful The Sea Around Us, on the wonders of the oceans. How I wish we had more science writing like this!

Ray Bradbury. He wrote great short stories, science fiction, the coming of age novel Dandelion Wine, and a dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451. Haven’t seen any modern science fiction writer quite like him.

Henri Nouwen. Whether it was his early The Wounded Healer, his book on leadership, In the Name of Jesus, or his reflections on Rembrandt’s painting in The Return of the Prodigal, Nouwen both opened your eyes to the pitfalls that lurk in our hearts and the healing intimacy of relationship with God.

John R. W. Stott. From his early Basic Christianity, which I gave to many friends who were exploring Christianity to classic The Cross of Christ, to his valedictory The Radical Disciple, Stott’s writing and preaching combined clarity of writing, theological orthodoxy, and a commitment to connecting Christian truth to the issues and concerns of any thoughtful person.

There are many others I could add but at the expense of brevity. Though I cannot read any new booksby these authors (unless they are previously unpublished works), they each are so good that their books are worth reading again. In the case of some on this list, I haven’t read all they’ve written, and so there are books by these people that will be new to me. Some I even have in one of my “to read” piles. There are others worth revisiting. How about you?

I’d Buy Their Next Books

One of the things about inveterate readers is that they have favorite authors. When the news comes that they have a new book coming out, we want to know when. We might even pre-order the book. Authors win that status with us in different ways. Some are great at writing page turners. Others simply write so beautifully that we revel in their prose. Some make sense of our world through their writing. Others make us think, or even re-examine our lives. So, here are some of those authors whose newest book I would buy.

Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See is probably the best work of fiction I have read in the past ten years. There are books that instill a sense of wonder as one reads. This was one of them. It’s been six years since this came out, so I hope there is a new one coming soon.

Kristen Hannah. I’ve remarked recently on how much I’ve enjoyed both The Nightingale and The Great Alone. Both had characters who take up residence in your head and plots that raise profound questions about the nature of evil and the possibility of goodness.

Louise Penny. I’ve discovered in the last year what many mystery lovers have long known–it’s a good thing Three Pines doesn’t really exist, or we’d all move there–just for the chance to get to know Chief Inspector Gamache. One of the great “thinking” detectives. Word is that the next in the series comes out this fall.

Ron Chernow. He’s given us some of the best biographies of the last few decades–Titan, The Warburgs, Alexander Hamilton, Washington, and Grant. The next will likely be a tome, but I will buy it for a great and long read.

Robert Caro. I dearly hope he (and I) live to see the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. I was in my early teens when he was president, and Caro draws out the complexity of this man who was both better and worse than I remember. His little volume, Working, was a fascinating glimpse into how he researches, sleuths for the truth, and his process of writing.

David McCullough. I think I’ve read everything he has written. His book Pioneers was fascinating, simply because he told the story of the people from the east who settle my home state of Ohio. I only wish he would have told more of the story of the people who were here before them. Maybe his next book will do that, if he has any more in him. My favorite was his biography of Harry S. Truman, who had the misfortune of coming between Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

Wendell Berry. He defines what it means to be a “curmudgeon” but provokes me in all he writes to think what it means to hold “membership” in a community, and to think of the land from which we derive our livelihood. Berry continually provokes me to think of what it means to love and care for a place and the desperate need for more such people in our country.

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion was one of the most profound theological works I read in the past ten years, reading it over the course of Lent. Her emphasis both on the substitutionary death of Christ and the victory over evil that occurred in Christ’s death took my thinking about these things in fresh directions.

Matthew Levering. This, perhaps is a name you’ve not heard. He is a Catholic theologian. The last book I read was Dying and the Virtues, exploring the virtues that help us both die and live well. I’ve read three of his books, all of which brought me to fresh insight about theological truths I grew up with. I had the privilege to interview him, much of which was spent in wonder as I listened to him do what seems the theologian’s calling–to think and then teach great ideas about God, and our relation to God.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I have only read her book on Caring for Truth in a Culture of Lies. This is a woman who cares for words in a culture where there is so many of them and so little insight or truth. I want to read more of what she has written, and will keep an eye out for her newest work.

There are many I’ve not included. I’d love to know the ones you would list and why. I have to think that between good authors and their readers, there is kind of an unspoken contract where authors reward the effort of their readers with everything from wonder to insight, where they faithfully pass along the vision of reality that opens not only their world, but ours.

The Month in Reviews: June 2020

the great alone

A classic biography. Agatha Christie at her best. Books on issues of race. American ideals, religious and otherwise. Theological works and atlases. A thoughtful work on the second half of life. A frank discussion of sexual abuse in the church. An exploration of the revival we so desperately long for. And quite possible one of the best novels I’ve read since the last one by the same author. That’s this month’s reading in a nutshell. And here are the books.

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay K, Gupta (Foreword by James D. G. Dunn). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. A study of the word pistis, often translated as “faith” as used in the writings of Paul, the rest of scripture, as well as in literature contemporary to the time, showing the rich nuances of meaning that must be determined by context. Review

The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American DreamD. L. Mayfield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A collection of Christian reflections chronicling the author’s awakening to the ways the American dream neither works for everyone nor reflects the values of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated. Review

sacred liberty

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious FreedomStephen Waldman. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. Rather than a given of American religious history, religious liberty has often been honored more in the breach, and fought for by religious minorities excluded from this liberty. Review

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When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Explores the expressions narcissism can take in the church, the damage it may do, and healing both for the abused and the narcissists who abuse them. Review

The Basic Bible Atlas

The Basic Bible AtlasJohn A. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. An introductory Bible atlas that combines an overview of the biblical narrative and colorful and detailed maps, with an emphasis on the significance of the geography to the unfolding plan of God. Review

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020. A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author. Review

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Good* White RacistKerry Connelly (Foreword by Michael W. Waters). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Explores how whites may be complicit with a system of racism while being well-intentioned and how white efforts to sustain a sense of “goodness” help perpetuate racial divides. Review

Crowmwell the Lord Protector

Cromwell: The Lord ProtectorAntonia Fraser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. A biography of Oliver Cromwell, a military and parliamentary leader during the English Civil Wars, rising after the death of Charles I to Lord Protector. Review

brown church

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. Review

Longing for Revival

Longing for RevivalJames Choung and Ryan Pfeifer. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A practical work on revival that begins with defining what it is and why we ought hope for it; second, what it means to experience revival; and third, what it means to lead in a time of revival. Review

the murder on the links

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), Agatha Christie. New York Harper Collins, 2011 (first published in 1923). A man who writes Poirot from the north of France of his life being in danger is found dead by Poirot under circumstances similar to another murder many years earlier that is key to Poirot unraveling the case. Review

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See-Through Marriage, Ryan and Selena Frederick. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. A fulfilling marriage is one that is transparent, about our joys and desires, our past and our failures, where all these things are brought into the light. Review

the great aloneThe Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Review

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators. Review

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020. An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life. Review

Best of the Month: Hands down, it has to be Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. The combination of wonderful writing about Alaska’s beauty and the lines that run between beauty and danger, love and danger, and characters that you can’t get out of your head makes this a truly great work. I’d be surprised if people weren’t reading this work ten years or more from now.

Best Quote of the Month: Jon Meacham’s In the Hands of the People, a book of quotes by and about Jefferson on numerous themes includes this one on voting that seems apropos in an election year:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

What I’m reading. I’ve just begun to read Lydia S. Dugdale’s The Lost Art of Dying. Dugdale explores how we have over-medicalized death and contends we need to recover the ancient wisdom of what it means to prepare for our death and die well. A Republic in the Ranks by Zachery Fry (an acquaintance) explores the way political influence played out in the Union Army and the reasons for the shift in affection from the Democrat McClellan to the Republican Lincoln that led to his 1864 re-election. The Influence of Soros by Emily Tamkin explores the ideals that motivate George Soros, the contradictory aspects of his life, and some of the reasons behind why so many vilify him. Lastly, I’m just beginning Tending Body, Mind, and Soul, an exploration of a theology of spiritual formation. As always, an interesting mix. It has been a busy month for me. I look forward to a quieter July, some chance to read and reflect, as the pandemic seems to be heating up. Stay safe out there my friends!

Review: Becoming Sage

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Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life.

One of the dirty little secrets of Christian discipleship is that most of the resources that have been developed focus around the early years of the Christian life, and most around the issues of the first half of life. What is a Christian to do who lives beyond his or her forties?

Michelle Van Loon proposes in this book that we move from what a Christian believes and does to growing in the wisdom won of hard life experiences, in other words becoming sage. Drawing on the work of Hagberg and Guelich, she argues that most church discipleship programs address the first three of six stages of Christian growth: 1. “God I believe in you”; 2. “God I belong to you.”; and 3. “God, I’m working for you.” At mid-life, we often hit the wall and all the earlier answers seem to stop working. She calls this “God where are you? I’m alone in the dark.” We face loss and we move from certainty to humility. If we persevere, we move into Stage 5 where we pass along what we’ve given, and Stage 6 as we prepare for and move toward the conclusion of our lives (“Lord, I’m coming home”).

Van Loon explores the process of growing sage through our changing relationship with the church and how we deal with wounds and disappointments. She describes our changing relationships with family and friendships that fade or endure and new ones that develop.

She explores that changes that inevitably happen to us bodily. She observes:

Becoming sage means growing into the tension of wasting away and being renewed. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and. As unlovely as the notion of suffering and decay are, Paul tells us here that eternal glory is being created through them.

Change happens with our money and our intangible treasures as well. We come to terms that we can’t take anything with us, and need to think how we leave these things behind well.

One of the most perceptive chapters is on the “U” curve of happiness. She discusses acedia (often known as the “noonday demon”), a kind of weary sadness that comes over many in midlife. Van Loon doesn’t have simple answers for this but rather the persevering faith that allows Christ to deconstruct and transform our relationship with Him.

She describes the movement from doing to being, from being “world changers” with the hubris this carries to those who by quiet faithfulness heal the world. We learn to impart what we learn and begin to prepare for facing our own home-going, our own death.

People hitting midlife are leaving the church. Some decide that when the answers they learned in their early years as Christians don’t work or satisfy, that there is nothing there, particularly when the church offers nothing, no vision of the second half of life. The issues Van Loon discusses often aren’t discussed. How do we deal with the disappointments of the church itself. How do we come to terms with the bodily changes that remind us of our mortality? How do we fruitfully invest what we’ve earned and learned? How do we prepare to die well when no one talks about this? Van Loon breaks the conspiracy of silence and casts a rich vision of the second half of life, a vision of becoming sage, going deeper into Christ and Christ-likeness in a lifelong journey of discipleship.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The #MeToo Reckoning

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators.

Ruth Everhart tells two #MeToo stories of her own in this book. In the first, she was raped at gunpoint in college. Part of her healing was testifying against her rapist, seeing him convicted and sent to prison. In many ways, the second incident was harder. Serving as an assistant pastor under Zane Bolinger, a respected senior pastor, she became the object of inappropriate attention, culminating with being forcibly kissed in her own office.

The early chapters of this book use this incident to trace how the dynamics of sexual assault often play out in churches, beginning with the patriarchal power exercised by Bolinger in assaulting her. She describes her efforts to seek redress from the church’s personnel committee, how they accepted the pastor’s account that he had acted from “pure Christian love,” burying the assault in pious language that protected the abuser and the institution. She concluded that she had to leave.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this narrative was the subsequent consequences in her former church. It did not have to do with Reverend Bolinger, who was gone by this time, at least not directly. A young man had been sexually abused by a church member. Everhart describes the conspiracy of secrecy that followed that did not report abuse to the authorities or even to the congregation and that elicited a “confession” that failed to acknowledge responsibility. The culture created by Bolinger, one of autocratic leadership that covered over anything detrimental to the church’s reputation continued. Healing only began with a process of bringing what had been hidden into the light, eventually resulting in the perpetrator’s conviction, and a new policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Everhart then goes on to describe her efforts to bring Bolinger up on charges before the denomination and the mixed results that illustrate how such proceedings often try to bring healing without justice, that neglect the basic issue of sincere apology, and the preservation of power and institutions (including protecting the institution from legal exposure above protecting victims). Subsequent chapters detail the connection between purity culture and rape culture in the church, patterns of betrayal and deceit by perpetrators, not only on victims, but on manipulated church leaders, and the challenge, particularly for women, of finding a voice to speak up, to press for justice.

Everhart interweaves biblical narrative with her own and others narrative. Abuses of power and sexual abuse run through scripture, in the stories of Tamar, of David and Bathsheba, and others. She shows God’s concern for the victims, some incorporated into the ancestral line of Jesus. Everhart also speaks frankly and practically about what denominations and churches can do to care for survivors rather than institutions, from honest language (“rape” instead of “had sex with”) to involving the whole church in how churches will respond to sexual abuse.

There has been a #MeToo reckoning taking place in our culture, from exposing assault by physicians to gymnasts and other athletes, to movie moguls and political figures. The Catholic Church is paying huge damages for past abuses. Bill Hybels, longtime leader of Willow Creek Church, was forced to step down due to a pattern of improper sexual behavior. These are stories now being played out in many churches. Everhart’s book ought to be a must-read for every church governance board. The church in the greatest danger is the one that says, “it won’t happen here.” Those are the ones that practice institutional denial when it does, including shaming, or shunting aside the survivors of abuse. Those are the ones that wittingly or unwittingly create a culture where abuse can continue unchecked–until the reckoning.

Everhart does not want your church to be among these but rather among those who create brave and safe spaces where these matters are spoken of with candor, where survivors can find support rather than shame, where “brightline” policies are in place that discourage or identify potential abusers early, and if abuse occurs, it is made public and prosecuted, not covered up. This is a book filled with hope for survivors and gritty encouragement for leaders who are ready to set aside patriarchy and power for protecting and raising up the vulnerable, who are willing to expose the ugly underside of human behavior to Christ’s truth and justice.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones

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Nathaniel R. Jones, by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library / Public domain

He grew up in Smoky Hollow. His father worked in the mills and later did janitorial work. His mother took in laundry. As a high school youth, he wrote for a local newspaper and organized a boycott of a segregated roller skating rink. He rose from working class beginnings to become a judge in the second highest court in the land as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The new Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Youngstown bears his name. Nathaniel R. Jones.

Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born in Youngstown on May 13, 1926 to Nathaniel Bacon Jones and Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones. After his father was laid off from his work in the mills during the depression, he washed windows and did janitorial work in local theaters, often taking Nathaniel along. His mother eventually became the subscription manager of The Buckeye Review, the local black newspaper. Publisher and lawyer J. Maynard Dickerson took young Nathaniel under his wing, allowing him to write a sports column in the paper.

As a high school student, he was active in the NAACP youth council, organizing a successful boycott of a roller skating link that allowed blacks to skate only on Monday nights. After serving in the Army Air Force, he went to a restaurant by the name of DuRell’s in the Youngstown area that refused to serve him. He filed suit against them, winning a judgment that did little more than pay his attorney’s fees. But he made a point. So began a career of pursuing civil rights for blacks.

He went to Youngstown College, and then received a law degree from Youngstown University, graduating in 1956 with his law degree. He set up a private practice, until named by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961. He was the first black to serve in the district in this position. In 1967 he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders.

After briefly returning to private practice, in 1969 he agreed to serve as general counsel for the national NAACP. At a recognition banquet hosted by the Youngstown NAACP the following year, he described the situation of blacks in the U.S. in these terms: “We still live in the basement of the great society. We must keep plodding until we get what we are striving for.” In his role as general counsel he strove to change that situation, directing all litigation for the NAACP. He argued cases challenging school segregation in the North and against racial bias in the military. He persuaded Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the one surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in 1951.

His fight against racial injustice was fought not only in the courts of the United States. In the 1980’s, he was arrested in South Africa for protesting the nation’s apartheid policies. Later, he helped in the drafting of a new South African constitution, ending apartheid. He also consulted with other African countries on setting up their judicial systems.

On August 28, 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Nathaniel R. Jones to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He assumed senior status in 1995 and retired on March 30, 2002. During his term on the bench, he taught at the University of Cincinnati law school and at Harvard Law School. On May 6, 2003, the second federal courthouse established in Youngstown was named in his honor.

After retirement from the court, he became Senior Counsel for Blank Rome LLP and co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He wrote a memoir, published in 2016: ”Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America.” That same year, he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, their highest award, recognizing outstanding achievement by an African-American.

Nathaniel R. Jones died of congestive heart failure at age 93 on January 26, 2020. He was one of the most distinquished figures to rise from working class beginnings in Youngstown. His comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer may give us a clue to his distinction. He said, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”

He prevailed.

[Special thanks to Nick Manolukas for suggesting this article]

Review: The Great Alone

the great alone

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Summary: A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin.

Ernt Allbright has inherited a piece of land in wilderness Alaska from a fellow POW who didn’t make it. Ernt did, but he was not the same fun-loving man Cora married when she found herself pregnant with Leonora, “Leni” to everyone who knew her. Ernt is volatile and paranoid, dominated increasingly by survivalist ideas, and unable to hold a job. Today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. That wasn’t talked about then.

Alaska could be a new beginning. They pile into a VW van, 13 year old Leni with her books, finally arriving into the town of Kaneq on the Kenai peninsula. Almost immediately the town takes them under their wing, teaching them what they must know to survive the beautifully dangerous place they are in. Canning vegetables and fruit, smoking salmon, trying to bag a bull moose. Winter is long, and survival is tough. But it seems like the new beginning could happen except for some disturbing signs. At a town welcome, Ernt immediately hates the town father, Tom Walker. And then the nights get longer, and the moods get darker, and while they learn of the dangers without, the greatest danger is Ernt himself.

Meanwhile, Leni throws herself into the chores, the one room school, and the rugged beauty of this place. After one winter, the town intervenes and compels Ernt to leave each winter to work on the pipeline while Cora and Leni maintain the homestead. The one classmate her age is Matt Walker, Tom’s son. They become friends.

Then one of the Alaska tragedies occurs. Matt and his mother are on a hike over ground they knew. Crossing a frozen river, the ice breaks and Matt’s mother is swept away before his eyes while he can do nothing. He goes away to Fairbanks to stay with his sister, and work through the horrible loss with a counselor. Leni writes him and her letters, his sister’s love, and the counselor’s work brings him through. He returns to Kaneq for his senior year of school, and a friendship blossoms into love.

Dangerous love. Large Marge, the gritty general store owner has taken Leni under her wing, providing her a job, even as the enmity between Ernt and Tom Walker grows. This love is the lighting of a match to a powder keg. The greatest danger may be to Cora, who absorbs the anger and physical abuse of Ernt. The whole town knows, and wants to help, but Cora will not press charges. Leni struggles between how she might endanger her mother, and her longing for Matthew’s love, and an escape to college, from this sick family system. And Matthew, having lost one love, will not let go, a reality that will play out in costly ways.

The book takes us inside spousal abuse, helping us understand why spouses may bear so much abuse and not flee. There is fear, and ugliness, and yet also love, a distorted love that stays and conceals despite the danger. It also captures the rugged beauty that draws people to Alaska, some running away from something, others running to something. But it is more than beauty. The struggle for survival either makes or breaks people. It makes Leni as well as Cora, whose strengths are often hidden even from her in her subordination to Ernt, and yet will emerge.

It’s also a book about the various forms of love, from the twisted love of Ernt and Cora, the love of mother and child, and the love of Matthew and Leni. Even more, it is the love of a town that will not be divided by Ernt’s paranoia, a town that finds quiet, rugged ways to love without violating boundaries, the commonsense love that binds a community together in “the great alone.”

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years was The Nightingale. This is a very different book but joins The Nightingale in that category for me. Hannah’s description of the beautiful and terrible landscape, her memorable characters (I absolutely loved Large Marge–every community needs someone like her), and riveting plot all captured me. We experience it all through the eyes of Leni, her struggle, her wonder, her growing love, and growing awareness of what is not right in her home. As she matures we see her live in the tension of heart-breaking hard and necessary choices, and holding the one she loves, the place she loves in her heart.

What Gives a Book Staying Power?

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Masterpieces” by Randy Robertson licensed under CC BY 2.0

What makes a book a classic? Why do some best sellers quickly peak and die, while other books, which may or may not have been bestsellers in their time endure? We’ve been talking about this at the Bob on Books Facebook page, and some of what’s here draws on the thoughts of the avid readers on that page.

Of course, a good plot and memorable characters generally are a prerequisite. Need we go further than Ebenezer Scrooge and the appearances of the three ghosts? Another example would be the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin–Tom, Eliza, and Evangeline St. Claire to name a few, and memorable scenes, like Eliza’s flight to freedom across the ice on the Ohio River, pursued by fugitive slave hunters. Plots don’t always have to be fast-moving or tight. Think of the massive works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Often, it seems that the development of a character, and that person’s interior monologue can sprawl across pages and yet engross us, because we can see how someone would really think like that.

That gets to another reason these books endure. They come to be recognized as books in which we both lose and find ourselves. We may become engrossed by a character, who in turn invites us to look at our own lives in fresh ways. It may be that a setting and characters remind people of what they value most in life. I think of the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a story of a family, of coming of age, and Brooklyn. Thousands of soldiers in World War 2 read the book, with memories of their families, their loves, and their homes. And many continue to see themselves in the adolescent children of the story, Mary Frances Nolan, and her brother “Neely.”

Sometimes, it seems to be a timeless issue. I’m not sure Fahrenheit 451 is distinguished in terms of plot and characters, but in its exploration of book burning and a society of censorship and why this must be resisted. The Jungle, though written in the early 1900’s setting of meat-packing plants still resonates as we think of how workers are often exploited in similar settings around the world (including meat-packing plants that are hot spots of infection in the current pandemic).

Timelessness seems to be one of the critical elements. Classic books are those people connect with generation after generation. Most of us are far from the gentrified setting of 18th century England. Yet generations have found themselves enthralled with the descriptions of elegant drawing rooms and manners, budding romances, and the roles of men and women, the limits on women, and how they contended with these in the works of Jane Austen. The dynamics of relations between men and women will always be with us, no matter how different our circumstances.

Classics are hardly infallible. They may draw us in but we may also define our realities in very different terms. We may come to these books with different sensibilities regarding race, gender, or social class. We may object to the way these are framed by the author, but they help us recognize from where we have come. They also make us question how future generations will evaluate our social structures.

One of the curious things is how classic works stay in print. It would seem to come down to people hearing about the book year after year from others who have loved it until it becomes one of those books you need to read. I do have to admit that I’m curious why some books make it to “classic” status, like Ulysses by James Joyce that maybe five people in the world have any clue to what it means. Maybe it is that people are impressed to see it on one’s shelf, which is one reason some acquire “classics.”

I suspect different classic works connect with people through the generations for different reasons. It suggests to me that there are variety of ways in which a work may be great, not just one. It also encourages me that the ways a work may be great are not exhausted. Some of the books that have deeply touched us may speak to future generations. Unfortunately, most of us will probably never know, any more than those who first read Jane Austen. But we will know that we read a good book.

Review: See-Through Marriage

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See-Through Marriage, Ryan and Selena Frederick. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: A fulfilling marriage is one that is transparent, about our joys and desires, our past and our failures, where all these things are brought into the light.

This book builds on the idea of 1 John 1:7:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

The authors maintain that in marriage, the most fulfilling marriages are honest marriages, where there are no secrets, where couples learn to bring to each other their joys and sorrows, their sins and failures, their desires and preferences. Part of what makes this scary is that we hide what we think will make the other love us less. Yet the vulnerability that tells the truth offers the chance to be loved even more–loved for who we are. Hiding actually distances us from each other.

They explore the lies we tell each other, the ways we hide, and what real transparency looks like. Transparency involves knowing ourselves–spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Transparency leads us into oneness. They explore the implications of this for our sexuality, for our communication, our friendships, and our experience of Christian community.

They face us with a choice:

   Being completely known and still completely loved is perhaps the greatest human desire. We long for a connection so deep and so unshakable that no matter who we are or what we do, we will still be counted as lovable. The desire drives us all forward, but not always to the same destination. It either will drive you to present a version of yourself that is more readily loved and accepted by others or will drive you into the shadows in hopes of not being exposed for who you truly are (pp. 46-47).

They tell stories of how they and other couples faced this choice and what it looked like to face fear and step into the light of transparency with each other. They offer questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or study together.

The patterns of transparency or hiding that couples develop early in their marriages are vital to the health of a marriage. This seems like a book particularly framed for couples in the early years of marriage, though it can be helpful at any point. This is not so much a book for a marriage in trouble, where the help of a counselor may be important, but rather a book that both prevents problems, and paints a vision of what marriage is meant to be.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Murder on the Links

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The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), Agatha Christie. New York Harper Collins, 2011 (first published in 1923).

Summary: A man who writes Poirot from the north of France of his life being in danger is found dead by Poirot under circumstances similar to another murder many years earlier that is key to Poirot unraveling the case.

For golfing fans, I hate to disappoint you, but apart from a murder taking place in a grave dug where a bunker for a golf course was to be sited, there is little about golf in this mystery. What you will find here is Agatha Christie at the height of her powers in one of her early Poirots, creating an intricate plot taking us in a succession of turns and suspects before the revelation of the true murderer.

I won’t take you on all the plot turns but will lay out enough to hopefully entice you to read one of Christie’s best. Hercule Poirot is in England with his companion, Arthur Hastings, when he receives a letter from the north of France from millionaire Paul Renaud, speaking of his life in danger, and requesting Poirot’s help. Poirot and Hastings immediately depart, only to arrive with the police on scene, investigating the murder of Monsieur Renaud. Madame Renaud had been found tightly bound by two strangers who questioned Monsieur Renaud and then took him out. His body was found in a newly dug grave stabbed in the back with a letter opener given to Madame Renaud by her son Jack, who had been sent to sail to South America.

Part of the fun in this story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the Sureté detective who crawls around everywhere but dismisses the piece of led pipe near the body, the dismissal of Jack to South America and the chauffeur, leaving only three female servants and an old gardener, a door left open, a piece of paper that was part of check with the name “Duveen.” Who was the mysterious visitor in Renaud’s study the evening before his death? Why payments of 200,000 francs from him into Madame Daubreuil’s account, a neighbor who frequently visited? Why were their footprints matching the gardener’s boots in one bed, while the other had none?

While Giraud keeps investigating, Poirot, troubled with similarities to a murder involving a Madame Beroldy, goes to Paris. Meanwhile, a young woman, “Cinderella” who Hastings previously met runs into him, hear’s the story of the murder and wants to see the scene. Afterward, the murder weapon goes missing, only to turn up in the back of a second corpse, a tramp dressed in nice clothes that in fact had died long before the weapon was thrust into him.

Then we learn that Jack had actually been in town the night of the murder. Jack was in love with Marthe Daubreuil, Madame Daubreuil’s daughter. We also learn that Jack’s father had changed his will, cutting Jack out because he insisted in his love affair, even though he had a girl he dumped, the twin sister of “Cinderella,” Dulcie Duveen, the woman who had been in Renaud’s study the night he was murdered.

As you can see, there are a whole host of suspects. Giraud fixes on Jack Renaud, who all but admits to the crime. Yet Poirot is not so sure. Not all is as it seems, but this plot has more twists and turns before the denouement, including a period where Hastings, for love, works against Poirot. This is one you want to read closely, paying attention to the clues, following the turns, trying to spot the red herrings. This is great, good fun–Christie at her best!